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Greatest Concerts of the 1970’s

Greatest Concerts Cover_144dpiAs part of its 50th anniversary year, Rolling Stone magazine’s May 4th “special issue” included a lengthy article on The 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years. I’ve been avoiding some of the “top N” lists that constantly flood social media, being so many are seemingly dreamed up by guys in their basement fishing for “click bait,” and some deemed dangerous to our privacy. But this article from the venerable rock magazine is entertaining and informative, well worth seeking out.

Over the years I’ve disagreed many times with critic’s music choices in Rolling Stone; they are so often focused on artists from the 1960’s and so frequently biased towards more commercial acts, weighted towards those hailing from the U.S. But the coverage is in depth, and the political analysis suits my beliefs nicely. I’ve been a long time subscriber.

The list of top 50 concerts in part drew my attention as I’ve recently released a book on the greatest concerts of the 70s entitled Rockin’ the City of Angels which features 36 acts from that decade, nearly all of whom played in my home town of Los Angeles, California. Was curious to see where our lists would match, and where they would diverge, and if that would be predictable for Rolling Stone. Due to the article covering 5 decades, there were 18 shows specifically from the 70s to consider.

Not surprising RS focused primarily on the type of bands that have nearly always appealed to their writing staff, six of which, in bold, matched mine, including:

The Who (Leeds, February 14, 1970)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Fillmore East March, 1970)
Elton John (Troubador, August 25-30, 1970)
Aretha Franklin (Fillmore West, March 5-7, 1971)
B.B. King (Cook County Jail, September 10, 1970)
The Allman Brothers (Fillmore East, March 11-13, 1971)
The Band (December 28-31, 1971)
The Rolling Stones (North America Tour, 1972)
David Bowie (World Tour 1972-73)
Van Morrison (North American Tour, 1973)
Patti Smith Group & Television (CBGB 1975)
Bob Marley (The Lyceum Theater, July 17-18, 1975)
Bob Dylan (Rolling Thunder Review, 1975-76)
Grateful Dead (North American Tour, 1977)
The Ramones (European Tour, 1977)
The Eagles (U.S. Tour 1977-1978)
The Clash (North American Tour, 1979)
Pink Floyd (The Wall Tour, 1980-81)

A 30% hit rate wasn’t a complete miss! In fact, as my own selection filtered out American R&B and the burgeoning punk movement (saved for future books), I match on about half of these artists. In addition, Van Morrison and Bob Marley are both artists I would have covered had editorial considerations not limited the book’s length!

A few particulars:

The Who Live at Leeds is indeed legendary as noted in RS, and it kicks off the first chapter in my book, as the Tommy album, the now expanded Live at Leeds recordings, and the film Live at the Isle of Wight rate highly in my collection.

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Photo @ Neal Preston

Elton John’s record-breaking shows at Dodger Stadium in 1975 are featured in my book, but I can absolutely back the argument that his first, intimate shows at the Troubadour launched him in the City of Angels, and make sense as the focus of the RS list.

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David Bowie’s seminal concerts during his Ziggy Stardust period in 1972-73 absolutely rate highly, and the movie taken from this tour is the primary official release of this artist on film during the decade. I struggled with the choice between this tour, and the 1976 shows in support of my favorite Station to Station. While Ziggy meant everything particularly to my friends in Hollywood and downtown, back in my suburban valley, I was more attuned to Station’s lush, disco-infused wares. The performances on that tour were striking – as one writer put it, Bowie appeared as a “hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonized intensity… ice masquerading as fire.”

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Ultimately these lists are a difficult undertaking – always there are forgotten favorites, and when it comes to musical art, how does one define “greatest” – it’s largely subjective, yet occasionally we labor to piece them together and support our conclusions.

If I were pressed to make a similar list of the 18 “greatest” concerts of the 1970s, as experienced my original home town of Los Angeles, understanding that all of the other 18 I cover in Rockin’ the City of Angels rate in my book, the list below would be my conclusion:

The Who – Tommy tour Anaheim Stadium June 14, 1970
The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street tour L.A. Forum, 1972
Jethro Tull – A Passion Play tour L.A. Forum July 20–22, 1973
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery tour California Jam April 6, 1974
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black tour – Shrine Auditorium June 19, 1974
Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour Shrine Auditorium January 24, 1975
Cat Stevens – Majikat tour L.A. Forum, February 2, 1976
David Bowie – Station to Station tour L.A. Forum February 8, 9 & 11, 1976
Ambrosia – Somewhere I Never Travelled tour – Santa Monica Civic 1976
Paul McCartney & Wings – Wings Over the World tour L.A. Forum June 21, 1976
Queen – News of the World tour L.A. Forum December 22, 1977
Led Zeppelin – Presence tour L.A. Forum June 23, 1977
Yes – Relayer Tour – Anaheim Stadium – July 17, 1976
Supertramp – Even in the Quietest Moments tour L.A. Forum April 28, 1977
Heart – Little Queen tour Universal Amphitheater July 17, 1977
Kansas – Point of Know Return tour Long Beach Arena December 31, 1977
ELO – Out of the Blue tour Anaheim Stadium, August 26,1978
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk tour L.A. Forum December 4–6, 1979
Pink Floyd – The Wall tour LA Memorial Sports Arena February 7–13, 1980

Caveats – not many – I trimmed out the bands such as Happy The Man, Kate Bush and Camel who did not make it to L.A. for their greatest tours (in the case of Ms. Bush, never forever!). Also gone were some of the more progressive acts, such as Gentle Giant, Frank Zappa, PFM, U.K., Dixie Dregs, which were amazing live, but did not garner a wider audience during the period of my focus. Even with the edits, I cheated and listed 19 bands.

Given the more mainstream focus of RS, I still would have expected the staff to cover a few more bands that make my top choices, such as Yes, Queen and Jethro Tull who I personally witness delivering the most spectacular live concerts of the decade. Having said that, I’ve come to predict the view of this magazine and their favorites over the years, which to be fair has in fact grown to include artists they would have skipped in the past. The article is a fun read, full of quotes from those who were there, and it may prompt you to reflect on your past concert experiences, and maybe grab a seat at an upcoming show, to again bask in the glow of stage lights.

 

Caught on Celluloid

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My old neighborhood Theater

With the recent passing of Lemmy, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, David Bowie and other rock heroes, I’ve been thinking about how important rock concert films are to the preservation of their music and performances. I don’t know many fans who collect these films, but there are many worth having, good for cranking up on a Friday night while unwinding from the week passed… The notes below illuminate the history of rock music movies, with a particular focus on concert film, rather than the use of rock music within a film. Concert films capture our rock heroes in their best moments, on the lighted stage, entertaining and amazing us with their showmanship, virtuosity, and aplomb. With some of them leaving this mortal coil, it’s a good time to reflect on these celluloid documents….

The relationship between popular music and the movies has been challenging, and while there are plenty of examples of opportunistic, awkward marriages, there are many others where the power of the movies and rock music combined have been magic. At the dawn of the form, Bill Haley’s 1954 single “Rock Around the Clock,” his “novelty foxtrot” did not dent the charts until it was included in the soundtrack for the Richard Brooks film The Blackboard Jungle, which itself became a sell out, pushing the single to number one. Two years later Elvis Presley burst on the scene and built his career on combining popular music and film, reaching audiences worldwide with his charismatic performances. Some felt these performances were a tad embarrassing, but they accomplished the goal of both entertaining fans, and expanding audiences. Across the pond in Britain, a similar evolution was taking place, with Tommy Steele starring in his own movie The Tommy Steele Story (1957) after releasing just a few hit singles. Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Jeff Conrad, Cliff Richard and many others followed suit, either on early rock music television shows, or on the big screen. But it was The Beatles who became a global phenomenon in part due to the strength of their appearances on television specials and variety shows in Britain, America and beyond. They were also a key part of establishing the bond between storytelling and rock music, as seen in their 1965 classic Help!

JethroTull_NothingIsEasy_72dpiAs the 1960s came to a close, rock and roll stars were beginning to literally take center stage, making records without hired studio musicians, and selling their wares based on the strength of their musicianship and performances alone. Rock festivals became cultural phenomena, and several of these were captured on film at the close of the decade, setting the scene for the advent of concert films throughout the 1970s. Monterey Pop (1969) caught Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and a host of rockers in defining moments on stage. In the United Kingdom, The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was filmed and led to a host of complete performances on film, including legendary videos of The Who and Jethro Tull. Arguably, the biggest, most important rock movie to start the decade was Woodstock (1970). Documenting the festival that took place on the 600-acre Woodstock_40thAnniversary_72dpifarm in upper New York State, the “celebration of love and peace” offered the screen up to The Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a host of other 60s rock acts, many of whom went on to major stardom. The film captured the spirit of the 60s, placing emphasis on the best sentiments of the hippie culture, and the heroes who spoke for them through music and performance. In stark contrast, Gimmie Shelter (1970) graphically captured the dark side of the movement, as members of the Hell’s Angels, who were policing the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamount Speedway east of San Francisco, beat a young black concertgoer to death in front of the band, symbolically ending the youth movement of the decade passed. As if to drive the point home, The Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), released theatrically in May 1970, depicted the sweet and sour dissolution of their union, capturing the band recording what would became their last albums Abbey Road and Let It Be. It is an important and rare document of the band in the studio, and on rooftop of the Apple building where they performed a short set live together for the last time, before being interrupted by the police.

Williams_PhantomOfThe Paradise_72dpiIt was during this tumultuous time that concert films took center stage in theaters, illuminating the live concert experience for posterity, favoring bands playing live on stage over scripted storytelling. While rock music was heard in countless soundtracks of the era, only a handful of movies featuring rock stars fronting their own story, or a fictional tale were funded and released. The first truly notable example of this form was Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Directed by Brian De Palma, this cult classic is about a record producer who claims as his own the music of a brilliant composer. The composer exacts his revenge Curry_RockyHorrorPictureShow_72dpiin the thrilling climax. Paul Williams received Academic Award and Gold Globe nominations for his musical score. This epic was followed the next year by the film, Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This cult classic is an homage to science fiction and B horror films, boasting a soundtrack with almost two dozen unforgettable songs that have become classics in their own right such as “Sweet Transvestite,” “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” and “The Time Warp.”

Who_Tommy_72dpiNext up was The Who’s Tommy (1975). Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock albums ever made, Tommy is a tale in music of a deaf, dumb and blind boy who inspires others to transcend their everyday circumstances. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The Who would be back at the end of the decade with Quadrophenia (1979). A battle between two rival gangs, the Mods and the Rockers, this movie uses the music of the Who to explore the dark side of growing up in London in the mid-1960s. Some of the Who’s greatest songs are featured, such as “The Real Me” and “Love Reign O’er Me.”

Who_IsleofWightCover_72dpiOther than these examples of storytelling, the decade would instead give favor to actual live concert films. One of the first filmed performances was also by The Who in December 1969 when the band began touring Tommy with a set list including nearly the entire rock opera. Tucked away as an extra on The Who film Live at Kilburn: 1977 (1977) is a film of that concert at the London Coliseum in December 1969. It’s not the best film, as the 16mm cameras could barely capture the show, which was not lit properly for film, an issue that plagues many movies from the decade. But it’s a key document of this legendary band delivering one of the first rock concept albums on stage. A much more watchable set was released as Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) which catches the band delivering an amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage at 2 am in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people. These shows kicked off the decade, setting the stage for a wealth of films to come.

McCartneyPaulWings_RockShowCover_72dpiMany of these best concert films of the 1970s will be reviewed within the pages of my upcoming book. Some were released to theaters during the decade, such as ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1970), Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii (1972), Yes’ Yessongs (1973), Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare (1976), Genesis’ in Concert (1977), The Band’s The Last Waltz (1978), but many more have been unearthed, restored and released on home video long after the end of the era. The decade closed with the release of one of the best-filmed concerts from that time, Paul McCartney and Wings Rock Show (1980). This concert, from the 1975-1976 “Wings Over the World” tour shows McCartney and Wings at their absolute best. The band play many of McCartney solo hits as well as some Beatles songs such as “Lady Madonna,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Blackbird.” It’s an exceptional film that will take any viewer right into the concert experience. It’s absolutely one of the best concert films of all time.

With the sad passing of David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Keith Emerson, here are a few titles worth consideration (apologies to Lemmy, I did not find any films of Motorhead from the 70s):

David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture

BowieDavid_ZiggyDVDCover_72dpiThe best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage and yhr fans out front. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing and source material that exposes extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.

David Bowie: Live at NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978
The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band while surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net. Recordings from the same tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978.

Eagles           

Eagles_historyCover_72dpiEagles Live at the Capital Centre March 1977. Jigsaw Productions, DVD
This concert is on the third disc of the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles. It captures the band in Washington D.C. on the Hotel California tour playing many of their most popular songs. A critic once accused the Eagles with “loitering on stage” and it’s true the band exuded the laid back California vibes perfectly captured in their music.Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later, and it’s a pleasure to watch this concert film. The dual guitar jam during the title track alone is worth the price of the set.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer  

Pictures at an Exhibition (1970) Eagle Rock, 144 min., DVD
This DVD shows ELP playing their version of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and other songs at the Lyceum in London. An excess of psychedelic effects mar the footage, but ELP’s musicianship is magnificent.

ELP_DVD_Cover_72dpiBeyond the Beginning [2 DVD set] Sanctuary Records, 250 min., DVD
A variety of clips of varying quality from the band’s early career are presented here. Although some of the video is out of synch with the audio, this is a worthwhile and essential collection of concert appearances by a talented and thrilling band. The highlight is their set at California Jam on the legendary Brain Salad Surgery tour.

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Keith Emerson, Cal Jam 1973

Top: Photo of the Corbin Theater above, after it was converted to a X-rated theater, late 70s….

 

Remembering Glenn Frey

Eagles_HCFrey_72dpiWhen I was a teenager in the 1970s, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing an Eagles song. They were practitioners of the “Southern California sound,” a mix of folk, country, bluegrass and rock played at a typically “mellow” pace (dude), made popular by artists like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Like the Beatles, CSN, and Chicago they always had multiple songwriters and at least three strong lead singers who could also combine to create amazing harmonies. The Eagles lyrics always struck a chord; somehow they seemed so much older and world weary than us fans. Songs like “Desperado,” Tequila Sunrise,” “Lyin’ Eyes” poetically exposed the human condition in the way of great country records. “Take it Easy” admonished us to not let the sound of our own wheels drive us crazy, to “lighten up” while we still could. My first girlfriend chose their sweet ballad “Best Of My Love” to represent us, and the song continues to be meaningful to me after all these years. Eventually, the radio overplayed many of these songs, and we “burned out” on a lot of them. In fact, this overexposure kept me from bothering to buy tickets to any of their shows in the 70s. We finally saw the band in Oakland a few years ago during what was their final proper tour, supporting their excellent documentary The History of the Eagles. It was a great show, full of classic songs, guest appearances, and interestingly, interludes where clips from the documentary were played on large screens that flanked the stage.

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Their classic album, Hotel California, the band’s fifth, hit the airwaves in 1976 finding a receptive global audience. Their most polished, accomplished recording, it eventually sold more than 30 million copies. Packed with their signature sound, it’s also a more rocking version of the band, which now included three guitarists, Frey, Don Felder, and new member Joe Walsh. Their excellent musicianship balanced grit and polish making huge hits of the title track, along with “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love,” and “New Kid in Town.” The messages in the lyrics are clear cautionary tales of excess, drugs, and lost dreams, mixed in with more typical love songs. The title track was open to interpretation, as was the album jacket’s imagery, which led many to draw outrageous conclusions, Eagles_HC5_72dpiincluding accusations of Satanism. Yet the band was cagy about explaining the meaning, other than saying it was a metaphor for a “journey from innocence to experience.” Of the album as a whole, Don Henley told Rolling Stone “We were all middle-class kids from the Midwest. Hotel California was our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles.” A stark interpretation it was. The band embarked on a long and successful tour to support the album, which included a stop in Washington D.C. where the proceedings were filmed, and included in that recent documentary DVD.

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A critic had accused the Eagles of loitering on stage, and it’s true that the band exuded the laid back California vibe so perfectly captured in their music. It’s one of the reasons they recruited rocker Joe Walsh into the band just before this album and tour. As the film shows, there were no duck walks, no stagecraft; the most animated player was Walsh whose facial expressions mimicked his winding guitar solos, demonstrated most aptly during his hit “Rocky Mountain Way.” The most memorable moment of the film is the signature solo for the title track “Hotel California” which found Joe Walsh and Don Felder delivering their dueling guitar solo facing each other in an exciting jovial moment. Yet their laconic style does not seem a disadvantage all these years later. It’s a pleasEagles_HC4_72dpiure to watch the band perform their many hits, including down-tempo classics like “Lyin’ Eyes” which demonstrates Frey’s ability to impress the audience, even with his eyes mostly closed! The professionally filmed wide screen movie is crisp and clear, caught by multiple cameras and edited to include wide shots and close-ups that are well timed to maximize the experience. Only eight songs are included, but it’s worth the price of the documentary set to have this content. Hopefully an unedited version of the film will eventually be released in the future.

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We lost Glenn Frey this week, and while it means no more reunion tours for the Eagles, his music will surely live on all over the world. At the time of his 80s solo career success, Frey said he realized, “You don’t have to give this up when you turn 30, 35 or 40. I’ll always make records and write songs. I gotta do them, otherwise I’d go nuts.” He needn’t have worried. Even after the band broke up in 1980 the classic rock format dominated radio stations in the U.S. where the next wave of British punk and dance music was being relegated to niche status. The format continues to this day, and the Eagles are still played frequently all over the world. Frey once said, “even though the band broke up they kept playing our songs all the time. It was like we never went away….we were still on the radio…” And it’s still true. Frey and his body of work will remain in our hearts. R.I.P.